- Geographical location: Western Europe
- Current political regime: Unitary semi-presidential constitutional republic
- Current capital: Paris
Following various long periods of occupation, notably by the Romans, subsequently followed by the Barbarian Invasions of the first few centuries AD, it was the conquest of Gaul by Clovis, the leader of the Franks, at the end of the 5th century which would prefigure the birth of the Kingdom of France and the Merovingian dynasty. The latter was followed by the Carolingian dynasty in the 8th century, when Pepin the Short seized the crown in 751.
He, and in particular his son, Charlemagne, expanded the territory exponentially.
In fact, by the end of the 8th century, there were more than a million square kilometers under the control of the sprawling Carolingian empire. Charlemagne was appointed Emperor of the Romans in AD 800.
Following the death of the emperor, the empire was finally divided up for reasons of inheritance. His son Charles inherited West Francia, which at that time covered approximately ⅔ of the territory of modern France. A feudal system was put in place based on three orders: the clergy, the nobility, and the third estate, in which there was relatively little place for royal power.
In 987, Hugh Capet founded the Capetian dynasty, which would rule for eight centuries and change the place of royal power. Philip II reconquered a large area of territory in the 12th century, and the name France was officially used in 1190.
The 13th century was a period of religion and crusades under Louis IX (Saint Louis).
The 14th century, for its part, was a time of great crises: the Hundred Years’ War against the English, the Black Death bubonic plague epidemic of 1347, and various insurrections which darkened it. At the end of the 15th century, the Renaissance began to appear in France, notably with the reign of Francis I.
In 1539, French became the official administrative language of the kingdom thanks to the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts.
At the dawn of the 16th century, a long struggle began between Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire on the one hand and France and Francis I – subsequently Henry II – on the other. French territory fluctuated following the signing of various and varied treaties.
At the same time, the Renaissance was flourishing. Leonardo da Vinci was at the court of Francis I and the châteaux of the Loire Valley sprang up one after the other: Blois, Chambord, Chenonceau… In 1535, Jacques Cartier discovered New France (the future Canada).
The second half of the 16th century was marred by the French Wars of Religion. Thousands of Huguenots (Protestants) were victims of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. It was finally Henry IV (a former Protestant converted to Catholicism) who brought an end to the disputes with the signing of the Edict of Nantes issued in 1598.
The 17th century was one of absolute monarchy, plots, and other court intrigues. If the Valois were fond of it, the Bourbons proved to be equal to their royal predecessors. Following Henry IV’s assassination, it was Marie de’ Medici, mother of the young Louis XIII, who acted as regent. In 1617, Louis XIII had her favorite, Concino Concini, executed and took back control, advised by Cardinal Richelieu. Once again, living conditions became complicated for the Protestants.
It was also a period of centralization. The mint in Paris became the most important, to the detriment of its provincial counterparts. At the same time, hostilities recommenced with the Holy Roman Empire and the Thirty Years’ War.
Louis XIII died in 1643, and the Sun was slow to rise.
Anne of Austria was regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. Following a difficult accession to power, notably due to the Fronde, Louis XIV finally took the throne, still accompanied by the loyal Mazarin. His reign was long and peppered with wars, great reforms, and constant battles to centralize power. The Edict of Nantes was revoked.
At the same time, France’s influence spread out across the world, and Versailles impressed with its splendors. Colonies were established in New France, Guadeloupe, and then Louisiana.
The 18th century was the time of the Enlightenment under the reign of Louis XV. It was also the sad time of slave traders and colonialism. Whereas French territory in Europe was expanding, notably with the acquisition of Corsica and Lorraine, the end of the Seven Years’ War resulted in important colonial losses such as that of New France. France retained only some training posts in India.
At the end of the 18th century and as Louis XVI came to power, the nation’s finances were at an all-time low, exhausted by the wars waged by his predecessors. Absolute monarchy was doomed to fail. Louis XVI’s reign came to an end with the French Revolution.
Having come to power in 1774, Louis XVI was finally beheaded in 1793.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte closed the revolutionary chapter with the Consulate before becoming Napoleon I and converting France into an empire. While a controversial figure, he was also behind numerous institutional reforms which have endured to the present day. Notably, he founded the Bank of France and reestablished the finances.
It was also a period of constant wars and forced expansion. However, Napoleon also suffered some notable setbacks such as the disastrous Russian campaign. France was invaded in 1814, and the emperor abdicated. It was the return of the Bourbons and royalty with Louis XVIII acceding to power which appeared to stabilize the situation. That was without counting on the pugnacity of Napoleon, who made his great return for the Hundred Days before being permanently exiled to St. Helena after the Battle of Waterloo.
Following this brief intermission, Louis XVIII and the Bourbon Restoration took control again. However, while Louis XVIII was wise enough to be accommodating, his successor, Charles X, made the mistake of wanting to restore the Ancien Régime fully in post-Revolutionary France. The July Revolution came in 1830. The Bourbons made way for the Orléanists through Louis Philippe I, King of the French (and no longer of France – an important difference).
The French Second Republic was created in 1848. Votes were passed for universal manhood suffrage and the abolition of slavery. However, the young republic had difficulty establishing itself and made way for the coup d’état skillfully led by Napoleon Louis Bonaparte in late 1851. The empire returned under Napoleon III.
France heralded in another revolution, but of an industrial nature this time.
Credit and the creation of companies were facilitated and major works were undertaken, notably those of Georges-Eugène Haussmann in Paris. French foreign policy became involved in various wars as an ally, thus establishing its importance. It was ultimately the war against Prussia that sounded the death knell of the empire in 1870. The republic returned. Third time lucky.
The French Third Republic was proclaimed in 1870 and endured until 1940.
If the 19th century seemed chaotic, at the beginning of the 20th century it was time for modernism and great reforms: freedom of the press, trade unionism, the founding of associations and political parties, divorce… It was also an era of symbolism: the bust of Marianne representing the Republic, the Marseillaise as the national anthem, and the 14th of July as a national holiday (Bastille Day).
In 70 years, the Third Republic would see a World War, the roaring twenties, and a major economic crisis: on a world scale too.
The years pass, the republic remains…
Until World War II. Following the defeat of 1940, the occupation, the resistance, and finally liberation, it was time to refound the republic. It was the birth of the fourth of its name, in 1946.
Everything needed to be rebuilt, and the period was one of great economic growth but also one of modernization and strategic nationalizations, heralding the 30-year post-war boom. However, foreign policy was more delicate: decolonization was under way. The First Indochina War was followed by the Algerian war…and the end of the Fourth Republic.
On June 1, 1958, General de Gaulle ordered the drafting of a new constitution.
The Fifth Republic was born.
France preserves a semi-presidential regime to the present day.
Over the course of its history, France has known various currencies, multiple monetary systems, and numerous periods of transition. From Charlemagne to the 11th century, it is not always easy to find your way. Charlemagne imposed a system based on the silver denarius for his empire: a system that lasted until the Revolution.
One livre was worth 20 sols and 240 denarii at that time.
Let us not forget that, for all intents and purposes, the livre (pound) was a unit of weight for evaluating the quantity of precious metal which should be present in a coin.
The livre Parisis (Paris pound) was in circulation at first and continued to rub shoulders with other currencies until 1667. The livre Tournois (from the mint at Tours) was supposed to replace it as of the 13th century. However, it must be noted that from the death of Charlemagne to the accession of Hugh Capet, royal power had little impact on the issuing of coins and, with the feudal system, even the smallest barony made a point of striking its own coins.
In the 11th century, his majesty Hugh Capet slammed his fist down on the table and things became regulated.
From that time on, the effigy of the king would appear on all coins. The franc then made its first (and brief) appearances.
First of all came the golden franc known as the “franc à cheval”, for it depicted the king on horseback, created by John II in 1360. It was then abandoned, only to return in 1575 under Henry III. Made of silver, it was worth one livre. It was left on the sidelines again under Louis XIII and replaced by the écu (crown).
Louis XIII launched a major currency reform in 1640.
He retained the golden écu (5 livres Tournois), created the famous Louis d’or worth two écus (or around 11 livres and 2 sols), and introduced the silver écu (6 livres) and the copper liard. The system remained in place until the French Revolution.
The Revolution marked the “true” beginnings of the franc.
However, it got off to a gentle start, with the French content to remove the effigy of Louis XVI from the coins in 1792. This was also the time when the distribution of the first “paper money” occurred, with the assignats. It was in 1795 that the revolutionary franc was born and the decimal system put in place. A silver franc was then divided into 10 decimes and 100 centimes; it replaced the livre Tournois and was officially worth 1 livre 0 sol and 3 denarii. In 1799, it became mandatory for all bookkeeping to be done in francs.
The franc germinal appeared in 1803.
There were then coins for ¼, ½, ¾, 1, 2, and 5 francs made of silver as well as the gold 20 and 40 francs (the famous “Napoléons”).
World War I shook the global economy fiercely. In 1928, the franc germinal made way for the Franc Poincaré, which marked an 80% devaluation of the late franc germinal. This was followed by the Great Depression, then World War II, and further devaluations.
General de Gaulle launched a major reform in 1958. It was the birth of the new franc then worth 100 “old” francs.
January 2002 saw the end of the franc, and the euro came into circulation.
Among other things, the French invented the bayonet (Vauban, 1671), the spirit level (Melchisédech Thévenot, 17th century), the bidet (18th century), the street light (Dominique-François Bourgeois, 1744), the automobile (Nicolas Joseph Cugnot and Amédée Bollée, 18th and 19th century), bleach (Claude-Louis Berthollet, 1785), the hot-air balloon (the Montgolfier brothers, 1783), the guillotine (Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, 1789), phosphorus-based matches (Charles Sauria, 19th century), the stethoscope (René Laennec, 1819), photography (Nicéphore Niépce, 1825), crepe bandages (Velpeau, 1860), waist containers (Eugène Poubelle, 1884), cinema (Louis and Auguste Lumière, 1895), neon (Georges Claude, 1910) and even the speaking clock (Ernest Esclangon, 1933).
Illustration: "Boulevard in Paris" by Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1885)